The poor are being placed last in South Africa's energy discussions.

What is a slum?

Is it a place of desperate poverty or entrepreneurial creativity? A place of criminality or a place of inspiration? A refuge or a Damoclean deathtrap?

A visit to Langa, Capetown’s oldest informal settlement, can leave you juggling the answer “all of the above”. The estimated population living in informal settlements like Langa is 863 million (UN Habitat report 2014) or around 15% of the global population. Planning a better, brighter world means understanding life in these circumstances. That isn’t merely some kind of rescue mission. Informal settlements have much to teach the world; about creativity, community, patience and perseverance.

I visited Langa with Hajo Tours, accompanied by Jerry. He was “born, bred and buttered in Langa”, educated in locals schools, and, based on the near-constant greetings, retains these ties. He found his previous job with Avis a bit of a drag. Being outdoors and in his community is just the change he was looking for. He was just the guide I was looking for.

The processing centre

The processing centre

Established in 1927 as an enclave for single migrant male labour, Langa was founded with planning and infrastructure. That includes the station where those labourers could be detained if found without documentation, a process that often ended in beatings and torture. Hopefully one day it will be a museum of memorial. For now a non-descript structure stands in quiet testament to what Trevor Noah describes as “the most advanced system of racial oppression known to humanity”.

Top to bottom and left to right: Partially renovated/partially destroyed buildings are a source of frustration; a mattress propped against the wall is where all the children sleep; electrcity is pre-purchaed based on what they can afford.

Top to bottom and left to right: Partially renovated/partially destroyed buildings are a source of frustration; a mattress propped against the wall is where all the children sleep; electrcity is pre-purchaed based on what they can afford.

This small room with three beds represents three families. Click on the photo to view the approximate location in Maps.

This small room with three beds represents three families. Click on the photo to view the approximate location in Maps.

Many of the original worker dormitories are still standing and Jerry brought me to a room within that is smaller than many children’s bedrooms in prosperous homes. He explained that each of the three beds I saw no longer represented merely an individual; in this six-room dwelling twenty families share communal cooking and living spaces and a single indoor latrine. The mattress propped against the wall in the communal space is for the children. All of them.

This section of Langa has a legal electricity supply. The residents purchase electricity in advance based on what they can afford, and what they can afford is not very much. So, there are decisions to be made that prosperous people don’t face, such as “Is it worthwhile to refrigerate or freeze this food?”. That’s a non-issue for the washing machine; in Langa, laundy is mostly completed by hand. This standard of living is comparatively good. There are more challenging sections of Langa, and more challenging settlements altogether.

A program of housing restoration is partially completed, which has rendered some dormitories close to modern apartments, housing a single family in each. If the family can maintain the lease for a period of years, they will be offered the invaluable: ownership documents for their home. Unfortunately, the money ran out before the renovations were complete. That left many of the buildings in appalling disrepair and the residents understandably frustrated. “Black, white, Indian, whatever… we don’t care who the next government is”, Jerry quipped as long as they deliver”.

Economic life in this section of “formal” Langa is both vibrant and dysfunctional. Car washes, welding, grocery stores and barber shops were just a few of the businesses that were busy on this Sunday visit, but more than half the shop fronts stood vandalized and barred. “Disputes” explained my guide. The ownership of the properties is not clear and the result of this uncertainty is conflict and disuse.

One enterprising woman was operating what I suspected was a lumber yard of some kind, but my guide bade me to inspect more closely. Beyond the fire pit lay a pile of fly-covered sheep heads. She will process them by searing off the wool, cooking and then opening the heads for the meat within. Not the brains though. “We think it makes you think like a sheep”.

It’s an unpalatable offering for the supermarket set, yet must be a valuable source of nutrition. Chronic malnutrition is an invisible affliction of the developing world. Affecting children from their time in the womb and particularly the first two years of life, lack of both macro and certain micro nutrients leads to stunted growth, impaired brain and nerve function and a lifetime of associated consequences. The symptoms of chronic malnutrition are an absence, not a presence. We can’t see it, but it is there and around Langa, for now at least, sheep heads form part of the answer. It is also good business: the owner has seen her two children to higher education… on sheep heads. That’s a rare distinction.

Beverley Hills

Beverley Hills

Just a short stroll from this unorthodox butcher is a section of Langa that is cheerfully known as “Beverley Hills”. Without a hint of envy, Beverley Hills is an option for those who have made it, and looks approximately like a middle class street. These houses are remarkably expensive, at anything from R 600,000 to R 1 million (US $40,000 - $80,000). That’s testament to the fact that these “slum dwellers” can become remarkably successful business people, many on little formal education. They not looking to leave, either. This is home and community. It’s also evidence that property is not cheap, even in areas pejoratively called “slums”.

Langa is small enough that security is a community business. The police force has historically been disinterested and so community security sprang up out of necessity. Predictably, this led to some terrible consequences for those on the receiving end of justice. Now, the police are meeting the community about half way, with Langa having four district community policing efforts that liaise with the official police forces. A prominent feature of a weekend in Langa is the sight of so many children on the streets playing happily together. I think my kids would be envious of having their friends around all day long; it’s an element of neighbourhood many in the developed world are fearful of losing. I am envious of their creative and collaborative play and their evident resourcefulness. It takes skill to ride a bicycle with no seat and no pedals. I had to ask, is this a safe place for children or not?

“It takes a community” Jerry explained. “This is much safer than the villages in the country, where rape of women and child abuse are much more common. Here, we can look after each other”. The concept of “behind closed doors” also applies to remote communities as a whole. Security is visibility.

Joe's. This area is sand, shacks, stolen electricity, communal water and rudimentary sanitation that give the district its name. Click to view Joe's on Maps

Joe's. This area is sand, shacks, stolen electricity, communal water and rudimentary sanitation that give the district its name. Click to view Joe's on Maps

A portion of particularly nice, government-built houses in Beverley Hills is strategically located to block the view of Langa from the main freeway to and from the airport. Further up the road though, the pavement turns to sand, the new houses are half-finished and abandoned, the shacks materialize and suddenly we are in a truly fragile part of the settlement. It’s known as “Joe’s”, after the branded port-a-loos that serve as sanitation. There is no contentment or adequacy about that. However with signs of change just down the road they can wait…for now. Here, electricity is stolen, cold water is collected from communal taps and again, businesses abound.

We paused to rest in a little bar, all galvanized iron and African beats, where the beer is cold and there is enough space around the pool table to get your angles. It started illegally, of course, but now it’s a licensed venue. I felt welcome. Nonetheless the only woman in the bar was a poster on the wall. It’s all well and good for the big white man but I would seek female opinions about the idea of living in this part of Langa.

A fortunate minority got solar hot water systems from the government. The remainder depend on fuels like paraffin.

A fortunate minority got solar hot water systems from the government. The remainder depend on fuels like paraffin.

On a sunny March day staying warm was not on my mind. But iron huts don’t provide much shelter and signs for paraffin sales point to the affordable solution. With Langa being a relatively lawful community, it’s not violence but fire that provides the omnipresent risk of death. That risk was on display just the day before. From Table Mountain, I spied a curious black cloud settled over a valley. It was a shack fire ripping through another settlement in Hout Bay. Fifteen thousand people lost their homes and at least two lost their lives. The consequences of poverty are not a hypothetical. The origin of the fire is unknown but we can know it will happen again, and again, as long as fragile settlements and rudimentary combustion are forced to mix.

There is nothing hypothetical about the danger of poverty.

There is nothing hypothetical about the danger of poverty.

Langa has a business heart like any other town, with a petrol station, small businesses, and a public transport depot. It has kindergartens, primary and secondary schools, one of which is known for recording a matriculation pass rate of greater than 90%. Here stands a memorial to the night of violence in 1960 where police opened fire on the protesting population. It’s a changed place.

“Before, if any commercial truck came here, it would be stoned, set alight, and everything would be stolen” Jeery tells me. Now, it’s a thriving commercial and transportation hub. The world does change. Part of the challenge is keeping a long enough memory to see it, and deep enough vision to maintain it. Langa could teach us something about that. When I had interrupted Jerry’s explanations for the second time seeking clarification, he gave me a little look and said “I’m getting to that”.  We broke into laughter.

“I’m sorry” I explained, “I’m not patient. I want to know everything now!”.

“In South Africa, in Langa, we have learned to be patient”.

Touché.

Patience has served South Africans well. However even South African-level patience may find its limit if the spread of prosperity splutters and stalls much further. Langa and the settlements like it co-exist with prosperity that would be at home in the upper echelons of New York, London or Sydney. These paraffin and plywood communities could be forgiven for rioting. The future of South Africa is an open story. A future where poverty tears the nation apart has not yet been written out of the ending.

Langa is delivering educated citizens. But many of them will find nowhere to go in this economy.

Langa is delivering educated citizens. But many of them will find nowhere to go in this economy.

The breadth and depth of necessary change is not resolvable via charitable enterprise. Alleviating poverty on this scale is the job of long-term, sustained economic growth. The basic needs are just that: sanitation, reliable and affordable electricity and safe, robust dwellings. Beyond that, people need secure tenure of their homes and the opportunity to work without the prospect of being branded a criminal, or a life that is actually criminal. Africa today is a massive pool of aimless labour. In South Africa alone, only about 40% of the working–age population have work, leaving 15 million people "not economically active". In Langa, many of the basics for a better future are in place to at least deliver healthy and educated adults but right now they have nearly nowhere to go. I have been asked repeatedly whether South Africa can afford a nuclear program. It’s vital to think in terms of the productivity and growth dividend that will be yielded by bringing this pool of labour into contact with the formal, taxable employment that can be attracted by an expanded electricity supply that is i) fully reliable, ii) industrially affordable, iii) designed to last 60 years and iv) on the right side of any change in global terms of trade on from climate policy.

The fact is they cannot afford not to proceed. In a developing nation like this, there is scant argument for considering the energy supply as a profit centre in its own right. It’s like a person asking “Can I afford to eat?”. Eating does not make a profit; it’s an essential input for productive work. So with electricity in South Africa,, it needs to be provided at cost or even as a loss-leading supply in order to activate and formalize the vast untapped economic potential of South African people. That’s how it is paid for: by massively broadening and expanding the economy including millions of new tax-payers. The potential dividend is huge. 

So it has been even more challenging to be additionally tested by media with the argument that the end of daily load-shedding signals that South Africa now has adequate electricity supply...that the crisis is over. Load-shedding ended because certain demand was ordered to curtail. That bruised the economy further, drove away investment and kicked the can a very short distance down an unpaved road. Suggesting South Africa has an adequate supply of electricity, that massive poverty is not a crisis, shows a level of detachment that may ultimately be very dangerous. In the most literal way, some prosperous citizens place their intellectual discomfort about nuclear energy over and above the actual lives of poor South Africans. The poor have been placed on the fringe of these arguments, just as they survive on the fringes of cities. That may one day endanger the nation itself.

There is a ready answer to that mental detachment though: visit. Jerry remarked that many South Africans have never set foot in a township and never will, despite the place of townships in the history, present and future of the nation. In Langa, a visitor is not an intruder. The interest, respect and recognition it demonstrates is appreciated, as it the economic input.

At the Langa community centre, where local art is made and sold and skills are taught to the community.

At the Langa community centre, where local art is made and sold and skills are taught to the community.

Settlements like Langa need many changes driven from national and global institutions. One thing they don’t need though? Lessons in building and running communities. They have lessons to teach the world about living together, working together and caring for each other; about diversity and sharing; about hard work and creativity; about patience and resourcefullness and above all, hope. There are many endangered species in South Africa. We need to make poverty top of that list to have any chance of protecting the rest. But Langa itself has qualities that shouldn’t just be conserved, they should be bottled and exported.

May the poverty fall. May the community rise.

Ben Heard